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“Cancel culture” does not exist

A series of controversies have caused much outrage over “cancel culture”. But what does the phrase actually mean, and is it useful at all?

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It’s a story that goes like this: there is a monster under the bed. It lurks in the shadows; sometimes it hides in the closet. You know it exists because you fear it – you wait for it. How could you be afraid of something that isn’t there? 

It’s easy to attribute fears around “cancel culture” to paranoia. “Cancel culture” might be defined as a mob mentality, a series of mass movements seeking to end the careers of public figures whose thoughts or opinions deviate from a new set of left-wing norms. The concept derives from internet language: “you're cancelled” was a catchphrase created by teens who rescinded their support for problematic celebrities. Its opponents would say that “cancel culture” is a generational craving to nitpick famous people over minute infractions, and ruin their lives if they don't adhere to political correctness.

This discussion particularly intensified last week, after a group of prominent artists, writers, and journalists signed an open letter in the US monthly Harper’s Magazine. With signatories including Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie, this letter was a defence of “open debate” – something these public figures feared is becoming increasingly unavailable. “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted... it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought,” it reads. “Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.” The irony of several notable figures arguing that they have been "silenced" in a prominent American magazine was not lost on many readers. The letter-writers argued that established careers could today be “vaporised” simply for expressing the “wrong” views. Their fear is that we no longer have the right to disagree. 

But is cancel culture a new name for an old phenomenon? For the better part of the last decade, we have given a label to something that has existed for the length of human history. Some might call it criticism, others might call it backlash. Regardless of what you call it, who holds power in these intellectual battles has always been the same. 

“Cancel culture” could also be defined as a collective desire for those in positions of power to be held responsible for their perceived wrongdoings. Most of the time, this is when it is believed the actions or opinions in question oppress the marginalised, or put the safety of others at risk. When JK Rowling argues to restrict trans access to women's safe spaces, her fans object because they sincerely believe such views make already vulnerable trans people more vulnerable; when longstanding sexual assault allegations re-emerge around Woody Allen, calls to boycott his films are led by the sincere belief that supporting him would invalidate the trauma of his accusers. The problem lies where it always has: disagreement of whether those actions are worthy of a reckoning or, as with sexual assault accusations, whether to believe the allegations at all.

The conversation about “cancel culture” is also inextricable from discussions about the internet. “Cancellation” rarely has real-world consequences: instead, it might result in names trending, take-down threads, and more replies to a tweet than likes. Social media has long been called “the great equaliser”, mostly in reference to Twitter, where everyone’s voice can be heard on the same stage. But even this is a falsehood: some people’s stages will always be bigger – reflecting the influence held in real life. Protests and outcries happen online just as they do in real life - they just happen faster, as articles and posts are quickly shared. It is merely an expedited system of longstanding, historical forms of democratic organisation, be it boycotts of companies whose CEOs are homophobic or protests calling for the impeachments of presidents.

Social media has just given a new name to something that has existed for a long time. But the effects are arguably more minor than counterculture protests of the last century. The majority of those “cancelled”, like JK Rowling, Dave Chappelle, or Aziz Ansari, go on to experience continuing commercial success. Even those rare cases where a job is lost, it’s often that they never needed that job in the first place (when Ian Buruma left the New York Review of Books after a Twitter-storm over a controversial article he published as editor, he still maintained his professorship at Bard College, which he continues to hold today). In some cases, backlash becomes part of their brand – a fresh, new pivot that benefits their growing bottom line. The British actor Laurence Fox saw his career re-invigorated when he was “cancelled” following a Question Time appearance in January this year; both the comedians Dave Chappelle and Aziz Ansari completed popular tours hooked to their respective cancellations.

Social media is merely the natural next arena upon which old tropes are playing out – a new space for historical power structures to be solidified (the new newspaper opinion section, or the new town square). “It’s naive at best, and disingenuous at worst, to claim [underrepresented demographics] are the engine behind a new age of intolerant orthodoxy,” Nesrine Mallik wrote on the subject for the Guardian. “Furores about such changes in orthodoxy have been around for as long as there has been any sort of challenge to mainstream conventions by new entrants.”

Those who are the loudest critics of “cancel culture” are also some of the loudest defenders of “free speech” and “open debate”. The idea is that, thanks to “cancel culture”, people can no longer speak freely, and soon only pre-approved opinions will be allowed in the public domain. But has any of this actually happened? The radical left-wing opinions held by many young people on social media are increasingly popular, but those people rarely hold any real power. And crucially, they have little sway over who should be stripped of power and status. Those who study the alt-right would argue the Overton window has actually shifted in the opposite direction, allowing for more racist, homophobic and misogynistic views than was acceptable ten years before. Some who claim to have been cancelled cite the genuine, obsessive harassment they've received as proof of the phenomenon. Harassment is never acceptable. But the truth is that there is bad faith on every side of every argument. The volume of abuse someone receives on social media tends to correspond to the size of the platform they have (and often, regrettably, to their gender).  

The few times we’ve seen people lose livelihoods in the “woke awakening” of the last few years have been for hardly defensible actions; Harvey Weinstein springs to mind, as well as the alt-right figure Milo Yiannopoulos, who has reported links to white nationalists. When we see discussions around free speech they tend to be about those whose careers have gone largely unaffected (many of those are signatories on the Harper’s letter). Despite the supposedly devastating consequences of “cancel culture”, a man accused of sexual assault occupies the White House and Boris Johnson’s career has soared despite countless Islamaphobic statements.

The question we must sincerely ask is: who has actually been cancelled? Millionaire authors continue to watch their books enjoy commercial success and filmmakers remain critically acclaimed (while also sitting on net worths of millions). They may have generated controversy and even lost fans. But have these controversies dramatically affected their earnings? Their power? Fundamentally, has their free speech been taken away? 

The right to free speech is not the right to have your unfiltered thoughts published without critique. It’s likely if you feel this way, you hold more power than most of the world. Social media can be intimidating when you have thousands of people disagreeing with you, and when this happens to non-famous people, it’s a different story. Jon Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed (2015) has been cited extensively on this, with good reason, delving into the lives of people who were hounded out of jobs for small mistakes going viral. But even Ronson himself believes this doesn't apply to this debate. “‘Cancel culture’ has become such a vague, catch-all, hodgepodge phrase, encompassing wildly different people and situations. It's not useful at all,” he tweeted on 10 July. Cancellation implies a status, a pedestal from which you will be torn down; the public shaming of civilians isn't about free speech, but about how little power normal people have over their own narrative when they suddenly go viral on social media.  

Cancellation, in the terms it is culturally viewed in, does not exist. Famous people with controversial opinions mostly get to carry on as they were; careers are not destroyed. As American journalist Jessica Valenti wrote earlier in July, “At the end of the day, ‘cancel culture’ is a term full of sound and fury, signifying nothing… facing consequences for what you say and do is not a free speech violation.” The powerful hold onto their power. The only real cost is having to listen to what others have to say. 

This is not about a social issue, a culture war, or even an open letter. It’s about how, even with a louder voice online, a mass of powerless people remains no match for the voice of a powerful one. Dynamics may shift, but oppressed groups (such as trans and black people) remain the losers in this battle. The individuals and institutions who wield power remain the same. 

So even if you fear the monster under the bed, it will never do you harm. It can’t, because it was never there in the first place. Repercussions rarely come for those in power. Why punch down, when you’ve already won? 

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. Sign up to her free weekly newsletter the Dress Down for the latest film, TV, art, theatre and book reviews.